I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a frisson of excitement to see all hell breaking loose in the heart of the civilised West. While the riots in London raged, South Africans greeted the warning by our government not to travel to Britain with glee. We are used to the idea of living on a knife-edge and feel a little smug that an uprising of this magnitude has happened in London, of all places. Pictures of angry people in Egypt or Syria are one thing, but England! Who’d’ve thought? And don’t forget that this is the England that left its legacy all over the world—discriminated and overpowered and took what it could until it was forced to retreat to its little island where it should’ve stayed in the first place.
Actually, compared to some of the other European tyrants, England was a little lamb, its fleece as white as snow. As patronising and arrogant as the English were towards Africans, they left a legacy of schools and roads. Others (should I mention names? Okay, I will), like the Belgians, left a legacy of war and general carnage that extends to this day. The British, I feel, really do try to do the right thing. It might be horribly misguided, but they do at least try.
It must be a shock then to realise that opening your doors, giving shelter and education, has backfired so terribly. The legacy of colonisation has come home to roost and could not be left on another continent. But this is not just a racial issue. Through the greed of the Blair boom years that allowed the poor to rise up the ladder—not the social ladder, mind—I think there was a feeling that England was changing. In the council estates, carefully placed by the ever fair-minded Brits so as never to be shoved onto the margins of the city, a melting pot of increasingly disenfranchised youth stirred up endless amounts of violence. And have done for years. So why is everyone so surprised? For them there was no ladder and no way out, so the violence and anger simply increased. And there is no doubt that black or white, they were very very angry.
I remember watching Andrea Arnolds’s very angry film, “Fish Tank,” about a very angry girl in a council estate (yes, that repetition was intended). I could barely watch the film. I kept counting how many bedrooms were in her flat. Mia and her sister had their own bedrooms. I tried to figure out how many bathrooms. Was one en-suite? There was a lounge and a nice little kitchen. And it was all free. Wow. In South Africa we have shacks sitting on sand and mud that get flooded by the winter rains. Many, many people sleep in one room. And, mostly, they have to pay someone.
It’s striking though, that this effort at playing fair, doing the right thing, is simply not enough. People in these council estates are essentially trapped in the psychology of poverty, even though the government says they’re free to move. Despite what I’ve read about this uprising being motivated by criminality, I simply don’t believe it. These are people who want to be part of the bigger world and are sick of being shut out.
Here, we are still tied to Britain in so many ways. Without being able to speak English, you don’t stand much of a chance of getting a decent job. And the majority of South Africans can’t speak English, or not very well. I look down the highway at Khayelitsha, the township outside Cape Town. I see the shacks, the dire poverty, people with open toilets facing onto the road (no en-suite there) and wonder what it’ll take for these people to say, “Enough, you can’t push us out, you have to let us in.” It is, I think, a matter of time and entitlement. Years of oppression bludgeon people into thinking they are undeserving and if our government fails to heed the stark warnings from the rest of the world, they will only have themselves to blame.
Isa-Lee Jacobson is a filmmaker living in Cape Town, South Africa. Examples of her work can be viewed on www.flyingfilms.co.za.